A matchup of defending divisional champions will put a bow on Week 10 in the NFL when the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles face off on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The Eagles (6-2) once again are positioned near the top of the NFC East, while the Panthers (3-5-1) are still within striking distance in a crowded, mediocre NFC South.
If Philadelphia wants to make it two straight division crowns under head coach Chip Kelly, the Eagles will have to do so with a backup quarterback and without their defensive anchor. Meanwhile Carolina head coach Ron Rivera is trying to figure out what’s happened to his defense, which was among the league’s best last season.
Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Philadelphia -7
Three Things to Watch
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1. Sanchez’ Second Chance
Nick Foles is out for at least six weeks with a broken collarbone, meaning Mark Sanchez is getting his second chance. The fifth player taken in the 2009 draft, Sanchez was the Jets’ starting quarterback from 2009-12. Despite leading his team to consecutive AFC Championship Games in his first two seasons, Sanchez’ tenure with the Jets was rocky, to say the least. He posted a winning record (37-31, including playoffs) as the starter, but completed just 55 percent of his passes with 77 touchdowns compared to 72 interceptions. A combination of a shoulder injury (torn labrum) last August and the Jets drafting Geno Smith led to the end of Sanchez’ time in the Big Apple. He didn’t play a single game for the Jets last season and the team released him in March. A week later, he signed a one-year deal with Philadelphia to back up Nick Foles, and Sanchez is now the starter with Foles sidelined. Last week against Houston in relief of Foles, Sanchez tossed two touchdown passes in the Eagles’ 31-21 win, but he also had two interceptions that allowed the Texans to stay in the game. Chip Kelly has had nothing but positive things to say about Sanchez since signing him and in the aftermath of Foles’ injury, but the only thing that really matters is what happens on the field. This is by the far the best supporting cast Sanchez has had as a pro, and Kelly’s offensive system is known to be quarterback-friendly. Everything appears to be in place for Sanchez to succeed. The question now is will he take full advantage of this second chance or just validate what was said about him near the end of his time with the Jets?
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2. Carolina’s (Lack of) Defense
The Panthers surprised pretty much everyone last season when they went 12-4 and won the NFC South. One of the big reasons for their success was a defense that ranked behind only the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks in several categories. In 2013, Carolina’s defense was the second stingiest in terms of yards (301.3 ypg) and points (15.1 ppg) allowed and it was led by Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. Unfortunately, what was a major strength last season has turned into a weakness. The Panthers gave up a total of 241 points last season, but have already allowed 236 in just nine games thus far. After starting the season 2-0, Carolina has gone 1-5-1, as the defense has given up 30.7 points per game during this ugly seven-game stretch. Run defense in particular has been a problem. Ron Rivera’s team was second in the league in stopping the run in 2013 (86.9 ypg), but enter tonight’s game ranked 26th (131.9 ypg). Each of the Panthers’ past four opponents has run for at least 105 yards. This is not a good trend considering the Eagles are eighth in the rushing offense (124.5 ypg) and are averaging 162 yards per game on the ground over their last four contests. Carolina relied heavily on its defense last season to not only keep the Panthers in games, but often times to win them. Success has been harder to come by this season, as the defense has regressed and the offense (19.7 ppg, 25th) hasn’t been able to pick up the slack. It’s been a rough go for Carolina’s defense lately, and things don’t figure to get any easier tonight against the league’s fourth-ranked offense.
3. Cam Gets Offensive?
Misery must love company, as both Carolina’s defense and offense have gone into a prolonged slump at the same time. As poorly as the defense has played over the last seven games (30.7 ppg allowed), it’s not like the offense has been lending a ton of support. The Panthers are averaging less than 20 points per game on the season and that’s only because they scored 68 points in back-to-back games in Weeks 5 and 6. They have managed 10 points or fewer three times, including in each of the past two games. A rash of injuries has impacted Carolina’s backfield all season, which has put even more pressure on Cam Newton and a practically brand-new group of pass-catchers. After showing a great deal of growth last season, Newton has hit a rough patch. His passing yards have gone down in each of the past four games, culminating with a career-worst performance last week at home against New Orleans when he completed just 10 of 28 passes (35.7 percent) for 151 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. Newton has thrown a pick in each of his last five games and hasn’t tossed a touchdown pass since Week 7. Even with reliable tight end Greg Olsen and talented wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers’ first-round pick, as Newton’s primary targets, he is averaging just 224.3 yards passing per game with eight touchdown passes. With an inconsistent running game (94.7 ypg, 26th) and a defense that’s been struggling, Carolina needs Newton to be at the top of his game. Perhaps tonight’s matchup against the Eagles will be just what Newton and the Panthers’ offense need to get going in the right direction.
Even though Philadelphia is without the services of Nick Foles, the Eagles play in an offensive system that's not dependent on the quarterback. Chip Kelly will come up with a game plan that should put Mark Sanchez in a position where he doesn't have to win the game by himself. I'm not so sure the same can be said for Cam Newton and Carolina. The Panthers have had trouble running the ball consistently alll season and this defense is not the same, stingy, physical unit it was in 2013. Philadelphia is 4-0 this season at Lincoln Financial Field and has won its last eight regular season home games. As long as Sanchez doesn't try to do too much himself and takes care of the football, the Eagles should soar at home tonight.